Three 6 Mafia Made History With Best Original Song

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Musicians like Three 6 Mafia aren’t “supposed” to win Oscars.

Despite the decades-long dominance of Black artists in the music industry, only four Black artists had won the Best Original Song award by 2006, when the classic gangsta rap trio scored its nomination in the category for their track from Hustle and Flow. In 1972, Isaac Hayes made history by winning for his “Theme From Shaft;” it would be another 11 years until another Black musician won, with Irene Cara taking home the prize for “Flashdance.”

Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie also took home one trophy apiece in the intervening years. But with four previous Black winners in 78 years setting a paltry track record for the category, Three 6 Mafia seemed likely to lose. That didn’t really matter to Frayser Boy, Juicy J, and DJ Paul, who recounted their excitement just to be around all those babelicious actresses in interviews, several years later. Plus, they were making history twice over: They were the first hip-hop group to earn a nomination for Hustle and Flow’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” And because Eminem skipped the Oscars in 2003, when he became the first rap artist to win Best Original Song, Three 6 Mafia were also the first rappers to actually perform at the show.

It was an electrifying performance. With the film’s star, Taraji P. Henson, joining them to belt the chorus, the trio brought an intensity and drama to the ceremony. Three 6 Mafia performed atop a gorgeously constructed set, made to emulate a modest Memphis apartment. Women in vinyl hot pants and men in hoodies told the song’s story through modest choreography: Gotta get this money to pay the rent, while these bitches are out here talking shit.

It was spectacularly crafted and obviously novel—both to a crowd of mostly white faces and me, age 12, seated on the floor at home. It was also clear that “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” was vastly superior to its awards-baiting competition, but, considering the whole “this is a hip-hop group at the freakin’ Oscars” thing, Three 6 Mafia’s chances seemed negligible. How were they gonna beat Dolly Parton, nominated for her instantly forgettable, halfheartedly performed “Travelin’ Thru?” People love Dolly! (Sorry, but I am not “people.”) And considering how the horrendous Crash ended up taking home the top prize, surely Kathleen Bird York’s sleepy “In the Deep” was set to contribute to its earnings!

But “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” rightfully took home the award, besting these two mawkish white-lady hymnals designed in a lab to appeal to the stereotypical Academy voter. There was nothing more satisfying than seeing Queen Latifah, who presented Best Original Song, open the envelope, smirk, then start singing, “It’s hard out here for a pimp!” The Three 6 boys piled back onto the stage, yelling over each other with insurmountable glee, thanking everyone from Jesus to George Clooney.

When host Jon Stewart came back onstage following this unprecedented win, he couldn’t contain his astonished laughter—because who would have thought these knuckleheads would trounce these test-tube Oscar babies? “You know what?” Stewart asked. “I think it just got a little easier out here for a pimp.” Jamie Foxx loved that joke, and I did too.

Three 6 Mafia’s win went on to define the evening; I remember a joke about how the group now had more Oscars than Martin Scorsese. There was something off-putting about all the white presenters having a laugh at these successful Black men’s win. And considering Crash won for its tone-deaf message about breaking down racial boundaries (over the beautiful and perfect Brokeback Mountain), it felt like the Oscars were doing some tokenistic back-patting.

But man, was “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” deserving. An utter earworm, a mini-masterpiece of storytelling, and a true stand-out. How fun it was to see something so unlike the typical Academy Award fare not only bring the house down, but take the trophy along with it? It felt like lightning in a bottle, something not to be repeated. So of course the Academy would wait nine years to hand another Black musician an Oscar, and not for hip-hop, mind you. (Common and John Legend shared the win in 2015, for Selma’s “Glory.”) Here’s hoping Three 6 Mafia isn’t the first last rap group to win Best Original Song in our lifetimes.

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